The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

Typical Georgian dining  a table specially set up in a fine room at Holkham Hall, Norfolk. (Copyright - David Winpenny)
Typical Georgian dining  a table specially set up in a fine room at Holkham Hall, Norfolk. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

It may be that, over the Christmas period, you used one room in your house rather more than you would normally do.

The dining room has, for many, become a space that we seldom use, except when we have friends round or family staying; you could argue that the dining room has taken the place of the Victorian front parlour, a sacrosanct space that was used only on high days and holidays.

Medieval dining  basic boards and benches at Dover Castle. (Copyright  David Winpenny)

Medieval dining  basic boards and benches at Dover Castle. (Copyright  David Winpenny)

Perhaps the dining room is fading away, just as the front parlour is hardly with us any longer.

Modern families, if they eat together at all and not in front of the television, more often congregate in the kitchen. The dining room languishes.

This is a shame, as it’s not been around for all that long.

In the Middle Ages the peasants would have had only one room in a cottage, so no room for the niceties of dining.

Tyntesfield House in Somerset  a mid-Victorian dining room. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Tyntesfield House in Somerset  a mid-Victorian dining room. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

The rich might have the space, but it did not occur to them to dedicate a separate room to eating.

The great hall of a castle or a country house was the place in which to eat – and to sleep, and generally to live.

When it was time to eat, boards were placed on trestles and benches were drawn up to this temporary table.

After the meal, the boards and trestles were taken away, and life continued.

After a time, there may have been a permanent table on the dais at the end of the hall, where the great and the good were to dine – but, gradually, this was used only on important occasions.

The great soon found that it was much more convenient to eat elsewhere; this move might have been accelerated by the lack of servants after the Black Death in the 14th Century and by later political upheavals, when it was wise not to discuss your private affairs where you could be overheard.

But the room to which they retired was not a dining room; it was a ‘privy parlour’ or a ‘solar’, or possibly a ‘great chamber’.

When they wished to eat, small tables were brought in for their use – and taken away once the meal was finished.

There may have been a great deal of ceremony as the food (often lukewarm at best) was brought in procession from the kitchen to the table, but the room in which it was eaten was still multi-purpose.

Very gradually, people began to think that a separate room, with a table and chairs permanently in place, might be a decent idea.

There is some suggestion that this idea coincided with the trend towards upholstering furniture, rather than just having wooden benches or chairs supplemented by cushions.

Expensive upholstered furniture was at risk from the messy business of eating, so removing the eating to its own space was a way of protecting the cut velvets or silk tissues of your best pieces.

Even by the mid-18th Century, the dining room had not really settled down to its present form.

Dr Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary did include the term, but defined a dining room as ‘the principal apartment of the house; the room where entertainments are made’, which suggests a more multifunctional room than we would recognise.

Great houses, though, would by now have a separate dining room, often decorated in the latest fashion – think of Robert Adam’s elegant dining rooms, for example.

But for other meals – breakfast and lunch – the old idea of bringing a table into a drawing room was maintained.

In the 18th Century it was wise to keep the kitchens, with their open fires, at some distance from the house. Frequently the kitchen occupied a separate wing, so food had to be carried long distances along corridors – or sometimes through tunnels – to reach the dining room.

It was in the 19th Century that the dining room really came into its own.

Victorian country houses had separate rooms for most functions, from trimming the oil lamps to dealing with the tenants, and dining rooms were part of the new setup.

The planning of some 19th Century houses was very elaborate; with the advent of reasonable fire-proofing, it wasn’t always necessary to have the kitchen in a separate building, and architects found many ingenious ways to bring the kitchen as close as possible to the dining room, while separating them sufficiently for the cooking smells to be kept out of the ‘posh’ parts of the house.

Victorian dining rooms generally lost the rather more feminine aspects that were apparent in Georgian times.

No more Robert Adam pastel shades or elegant gilt-and-white Greek-style rooms; the Victorians went in for dark wooden furniture and heavy drapes.

This may be because the tradition was established for ladies to withdraw after dinner, leaving the dining room to the men, with their port, brandy, cigars and less delicate talk.

Sometimes these dining rooms had both a large dinner table and a smaller table for breakfast; in the largest and grandest establishments, though, there was usually a separate breakfast room.

Grand houses continued to have dedicated dining rooms well into the 20th Century – and, inevitably, middle class houses followed their lead; most suburban semi-detached houses would have what the sales particulars designated as a dining room, though they may not, of course, always have been used for that purpose.

Today, the trend of open-plan living is seeing the rapid demise of the dining room.

Many now aspire to the kitchen-diner (as ugly a term as some American designations for a kitchen eating-area: ‘dinette’ or ‘breakfast nook’), which becomes a multi-purpose living room with sofas and television.

After not more than 200 years we have seen the rise and fall of the dining room; what, we may wonder, will be the next phase in the development of the house?