to Isle of Wight History CentreIs this the earliest example of Concrete Housing ?

In the mid 19th century the Isle of Wight's Medina Cement Company was at the forefront in the development of concrete. Examples of its product can be found locally, on the mainland and on the continent.

These houses have external walls of solid concrete. They were built in 1852 as part of the East Cowes Park venture, in what is now York Avenue.
concrete houses

19th Century Developments in Concrete
Until the end of the 18th century concrete had seen little development since the basic lime mixture of Roman times. It was the use of limestone with an inherent clay content, calcined and finely ground, which began the development of superior cement and concrete. This was generally termed 'roman' cement but various companies gave it there own trade names. From the middle of the 19th century the technique of bringing together limestone and clay as separate elements began to take precedence. This system was progressed and perfected by Portland Cement. By the end of the century it dominated the market, giving rise to the generic term 'portland' to describe the manufacturing process of modern cement.

The Medina Cement Company
The Medina Cement Company was established on the west bank of the Medina river around 1840. By mid century it had acquired a reputation as a pioneer in cement concrete. For a number of years it rivalled Portland Cement, exhibiting at the 1851 Great Exhibition and securing government contracts. The two products had quite different properties: Medina Cement was a 'roman' cement and quick drying, while Portland was, at that stage, slower but ultimately stronger. In one of the great construction feats of the 19th century, Cherbourg Breakwater, the French combined both Medina and Portland cements to arrive at the ideal concrete setting time. The Medina Cement Company also made a form of portland cement but towards the end of the century poor management seems to have induced a number of financial setbacks. In 1900 the company amalgamated with 26 others to form the Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers Ltd. It ceased manufacturing on the site in 1946.

The Houses
There is no doubt that the pair of York Avenue houses are built of solid concrete, although there have been subsequent brick extensions. Documents show that Richard Langley leased the site in 1852 and built this pair of houses, then named 'Upper Park Cottages'. The two articles below appeared in successive editions of the Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal in 1852. They detail the building of a pair of concrete houses on a site approximate to the York Avenue building. Langley is the developer and the Medina Cement supply the concrete. Today this construction method is called 'shuttered concrete'.

June 1852

The key to the success of the building process appears to be the quick setting time of Medina Cement.

The York Avenue houses had concrete chimneys dismantled in the 1980's

Confidence in the longevity of the Sandown groyne was well placed - it's still there.

article 1

article 2July 1852

This second article is a 'correction' to the first but was given more prominence. It apparently arose out of correspondence rather than an independent report, so the information therein may contain an element of publicity on behalf of Langley.

The presence of 'medical and scientific men' to witness the construction points to the process being seen as somewhat revolutionary. Even if Langley is exaggerating the interest shown by experts, both he and the journal editors clearly feel a new system of house construction is being pioneered.

The construction process may not have gone quite so smoothly as the article suggests. There is at least one unused foundation under the floor implying a plan to build the internal walls of concrete was abandoned. The article suggests more concrete houses were planned for the estate yet there is no evidence more were built.

East Cowes Park
The original plans for East Cowes Park were raised in the early 1840s. It was an ambitious venture. The centrepiece was a botanical garden surrounded by upper middle class villas in spacious plots and serviced by wide avenues. Most of the gardens and some villas were completed by 1850, but the project had already run into financial difficulty and bankrupt proceeding had resulted in new owners. Attempts to revive interest in the scheme struggled on but ambitions were scaled down and ultimately the plan was abandoned. East Cowes Park was auctioned off in 1874.

Richard Langley.
Richard Langley is first recorded at East Cowes in 1850. He seems to have been appointed as an agent for East Cowes Park following bankrupt proceedings. He acquired a number of building plots but his precise financial interest in the park is unclear. He is variously described as 'proprietor of houses', 'Managing Superintendent of East Cowes Park' and 'House and land agent'. Whatever his exact role, he was a major player in trying to revive interest in the stalled venture. Langley was born in Rochester, Kent. We know little of his life before he arrived here. By mid century Rochester was a centre of cement manufacture, so he may have brought some experience in concrete with him.

Other Early Concrete Houses
The most likely area to find other concrete structures is around the Medway in Kent. This was the centre of 19th century development in cements, particularly in the portland process. Enquiries with building conservation departments did not reveal a standing example dated earlier than 1874. There are written references to concrete houses in the district as early as 1835. However early use of the term 'concrete house' almost certainly refers to construction via preformed concrete blocks, rather than solid concrete. Building with blocks was a less demanding process and the creation of an 'artificial stone' was one of the main aims of concrete development. In 1852 a major Swanscome manufacturer presented a paper to the Institute of Civil Engineers in which the principal uses for cement were outlined as mortar for brickwork, moulded blocks and external stucco. In his book The Cement Industry 1796-1914 A.J. Francis says Portland Cement does not appear to have been used for shuttered concrete buildings until the 1860's. Even the Medina Cement Company were apparently loathe to repeat the York Avenue experience. In 1856 they were promoting far more modest shuttered concrete housing "suitable for soldiers and for the working classes".

The Wrong Hero ?
A recent episode of the BBC TV series Local Heroes included an item on Andrew Peterson who's claim to fame was the building of the Sway Tower. He used a mould in the shuttered concrete manner, putting down only 6 inches of Portland Cement concrete at a time. The programme implied he was something of a pioneer in this method. In fact this was 22 years after the York Avenue houses were built.

CONCLUSIONS 19th century cement developments had mainly centred around building with prefabricated concrete. The quick drying Medina Cement lent itself to structures being built in situ. It's unclear as to whether it was Richard Langley or the Medina Cement Company who instigated this type of structure. Maybe it was the combination of Langley's entrepreneurial drive and the technical experience of Medina Cement which prompted such a revolutionary project. It seems unlikely something as complex as these houses was the first attempt at such a process. There may have been more simple structures long since gone. However there can be little doubt this property is one of the earliest shuttered concrete buildings in Britain. Indeed, given that other countries looked to British cements at that time, it's possible the York Avenue building is the earliest example of its type anywhere in the World.

Related site:-
The History of Concrete -A timeline of developments
Castle House -A fine mid 19th century building demonstrating the use of pre-fabricated 'artificial stone', now under preservation

The Cement Industry 1796-1914: A History - A.J. Francis
The History of Blue Circle - Peter Pugh

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May 1999