How the English became obsessed with property

The sense of individualism and fear of revolution gave rise to the cult of the home. Only now do we

By far the most entertaining programme in the current BBC series on the National Trust is the one on the tussle over Lennon House in Liverpool. Described acidly by Simon Jenkins as "considerably more genteel than the McCartney house", the former Beatle's home is situated on a dual carriageway in Woolton, enjoying "the rendered exterior, canted windows and hipped roof of tens of thousands of inter-war houses of the New Ideal Homes movement". What is more remarkable is how the innocuous three-bedroom semi manages to split the mighty National Trust - as old guard heritage experts battle the modernisers in what is, at heart, a struggle over English identity and the place of the home within it.

Such domestic fury will perhaps come as little surprise to a viewing nation bewitched by property. Long after the drama of the 1980s boom and 1990s negative equity, home-ownership still stands its ground along with weather and train times as Britain's public conversation of choice. House price surveys and interest rate non-decisions command the front page; country house visiting is the pastime of millions; while the TV schedules are dominated by the generic pap of Location, Location, Location, Property Ladder, Trading Up or, for the more aspirational, Grand Designs. And with A Place in the Sun, this addiction to property gambling has been transposed to the Continent.

However, it seems unlikely that the home improvement cult will take deep root on the European mainland. For the culture of property ownership has always been a steady source of contrast between the British Isles (and most especially England) and the continental mainland. It has provided a rich vein of amusement for the French and Germans - as they eat well, holiday incessantly and exchange properties quickly, while the British labour under eye-watering mortgages in a stultified housing market.

Yet policy-makers are now looking less indulgently at our national predilection for property. The Treasury seems intent on reforming Britain's uncompetitive mortgage market and urban planners are at last starting to confront our patriotic attachment to the semi-detached executive home. As demand for housing rises and green space declines, politicians and bureaucrats are now challenging the nation's innate affection for domestic privacy above urban interaction.

As ever, it took a foreigner to elucidate an obvious national characteristic. In 1896, the architect Hermann Muthesius joined the German embassy in London as a special attache with a brief to report on British urban utilities. His real ambition, however, was to study English housebuilding. As he wrote to Grand Duke Carl Alexander of Saxe-Weimar: "There is nothing as unique in English architecture as the development of the house . . . no nation is more committed to its development, because no nation has identified itself more with the house."

Much of this commitment to domesticity could be located in the hoary Anglo-Saxon reverence for individualism. "The great store that the English still set by owning their home," wrote Muthesius, "is part of this powerful sense of the individual personality. " The English displayed a minimal desire for sociability or civic engagement outside of their own home. "Outside pleasures, the hubbub of the metropolitan streets, a visit to a Bierkeller or a cafe are almost hateful to him."

This self-satisfaction with the domestic environment was further reinforced by the "decidedly conservative sense of the Anglo-Saxon, who seems scarcely to recognise the charm of change and finds any alteration in his way of life - such as we experience automatically and all too frequently in our life in multi-storeyed buildings - doubly disturbing". And then finally, there was the weather. The damp, oppressive air and perpetually overcast sky encouraged the Englishman's ardour for his house. "Gathered round the fire in the seclusion of the room, the family seeks refuge and comfort."

It was not without irony that Muthesius's diplomatic masters in Germany should hope for domestic insights from London - as ever since Britain began to investigate its national identity in the 18th century, the contribution of the Saxon was regarded as pre-eminent. The supremely "English" qualities of self-government, militarism and rugged independence were generally attributed to the Germanic invaders. The Oxford professor of history William Stubbs summed up the consensus: "The English are a people of German descent in the main constituents of blood, character and language, but most especially in the possession of the elements of primitive German civilisation and the common germs of German institutions." Among which they counted the cult of home-ownership.

Numerous 19th-century visitors regarded England's national addiction to individual, domestic separation as "an ancient German tendency" - not least in its celebration of the homely virtues of women. The historian John Kemble, author of The Saxons in England, glowingly recounted the Germanic tradition of worship, "even in the depths of their forests", for the mistress of the house. Another celebrated German immigrant, Prince Albert, only augmented this sentimental affection for gendered home life with his careful choreography of the royal household - complete with Christmas trees, fires and steady, paternal authority.

Alongside domesticity was a belief in a political rationale for home-ownership. The Continental affection towards cafe society, apartments and street life had fostered in Europe a dangerous radicalism. And as the bloody history of Paris had shown, a society without home-ownership could easily be subject to the revolutionary whim of the mob. The Duke of Wellington thought the events of 1789 and 1815 impossible in England. "The different mode of tenanting the houses, each house generally belonging to a single family, would contribute to this." Alexis de Tocqueville could only admire how British home ownership impeded the despotic ambitions of the state - a political theory proved horribly wrong in the 1980s as expanded home-ownership only emboldened the Thatcher government.

By the end of the 19th century, the household ethic had become a quintessentially English concept. According to Paul Langford, a historian of Englishness, the home was now a term of instant linguistic approval: homespun, home-bred, home-grown, home-made, home-cooked ad nauseam. As if to prove the point, there then burst into print one of English literature's finest home-owners. "My dear wife Carrie and I have just been a week in our new house, 'The Laurels', Brickfield Terrace, Holloway - a nice six-roomed residence, not counting basement, with a front breakfast-parlour," announced Charles Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody. "'Home, Sweet Home', that's my motto. I am always in of an evening. There is always something to be done: a tin-tack here, a Venetian blind to put straight, a fan to nail up, or part of a carpet to nail down."

Pooter set the tone for a new fetish of home-owning. The suburbs that had first begun to circle the major urban conurbations from the 1880s expanded ferociously during the inter-war years. An average of 300,000 houses were built every year during the 1920s and 1930s. In a vast transhumance, the British made their way from the cities to the low-density, low-rise housing springing up between railway stations, along arterial roads and in vast housing estates. With it came the car and a renewed rejection of society beyond the immediate family: the most sought-after suburb was one that gave the maximum privacy - behind gates, hedges and walls - and the minimum outside distraction.

Residents of the suburban drive channelled their creative passions into an orgy of DIY and home improvements. Leaving behind Pooter's Venetian blinds for loft conversions, RSJs and stripped floors, changing rooms became the postwar pastime of millions. The celebrated individualism of the English was now expressed not through architecture but a particular shade of Farrow & Ball. For Britain's 22 million households (one-third of which are owned by single persons), Sunday has long since become the day of B&Q rather than the C of E.

Yet there is another story of British social relations. One that emphasises not the possessive individualism of the home-owner, but the associational heritage of our towns and cities. From the gentleman's clubs of London to the Mechanics Institutes of Bolton to the Halle Orchestra, Hermann Muthesius ignored our vibrant tradition of civil society. Lectures, concerts, political rallies and civic ceremonials, at which women were welcome participants, turned Britain's cities into cultural fiefdoms.

Sadly, this tradition was then jettisoned in the inter-war years, as suburbia and metropolitan dominance eroded the civic base. Today, at last, it is being rediscovered. Most successful urban regeneration strategies - Birmingham city centre, Newcastle docks, even Trafalgar Square - focus on recreating a public space for civic engagement. Economists have shown how a sense of urban vibrancy is instrumental in attracting the footloose young professionals and knowledge-workers who are so vital to any modern city's prosperity. The hubbub of street life, historically dismissed as anti-English, is now regarded as an essential indicator of a city's cultural and fiscal health.

None of which would have come as a great surprise to John Lennon and Paul McCartney in 1950s Liverpool. For what Muthesius equally failed to appreciate was the culture of the working-class home. Not only did the vast majority never taste the architectural splendours of the English domestic style, they also combined individual home life with a much richer associational culture based around the street, the pub, organised sport and the innumerable clubs which flitted through the household. And that is perhaps what so troubles the National Trust Pooh-Bahs. In Lennon House, they are commemorating a different culture of home-ownership, and with it a very different Britain.

Tristram Hunt teaches history at Queen Mary, University of London. His new book, Building Jerusalem, will be published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in June