Daylight Robbery

Windows Across the British Colonial Continuum - A Visual Essay.

January 2023 - March 2023
MA Interior Design - Elective
Royal College of Art

A well-lit and ventilated room is critical to our health and wellbeing. Studies show that light and air affect our sleep, stress levels, bone density, eye health and metabolism. When a tax was levied on the number of  windows a house had in Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries, the impact was catastrophic. As Britain went on to colonise Singapore and Hong Kong shortly after this tax, despite knowing how important windows were to the health of the population, the architecture they built shows a complete lack of consideration to this matter. This cartography aims to analyse the design of windows within Britain and across its colonies of Singapore and Hong Kong during the 19th and 20th centuries, and the legacy it has left within public housing.

The Window Tax was a tax on the number of windows in a building that was introduced in England in 1696 and lasted until 1851. To alleviate the tax burden on the poor, an exemption from the Window Tax was introduced for cottages with fewer than seven windows. However, this exemption proved to be ineffective in urban areas where the poor lived in large tenement blocks, which were taxed as a single entity despite having several windows per apartment. Poor families would block up windows to avoid paying the tax, leading to poor ventilation and dampness, causing an increase in diseases such as smallpox and malaria. The second cholera epidemic in 1848 was the catalyst to having the tax repealed in 1851.

It was at this point in time that Britain was beginning to colonise Hong Kong and Singapore. Britain colonised Hong Kong in 1842, after the First Opium War and Singapore in 1824. In response to the rapidly growing population, Tong Lau in Hong Kong and Shophouses in Singapore – two very similar housing typologies were built for the citizens. They were often cramped and unsanitary, with poor ventilation and limited access to natural light. As a result of the 1898 bubonic plague in Hong Kong, the Buildings Ordinance set out a series of building regulations that imposed a greater number of windows throughout the building to improve both light and ventilation. A similar law was implemented in Singapore which led to internal courtyards and lightwells being added to later shophouse designs. It is interesting to compare the designs of the Tong Lau and Shophouses to that of the private housing for the coloniser families. The typically Classical style homes in Hong Kong and the Black and White Bungalows of Singapore incorporate large windows across the façade, maximising light and air.

The legacy of the Window Tax can be seen in the public housing of Britain and postcolonial Hong Kong and Singapore. The design of large-scale council estates in the second half of the 20th century in Britain perpetuate poor lighting and ventilation conditions, creating a link to the legacy left behind by British colonial rule, as many of the people living in these council estates come from ex-colonies. Public housing in Hong Kong and Singapore have many features stemming from their colonial architecture, but have demonstrated an ability to learn from the design mistakes by incorporating better ventilation and lighting techniques.

In conclusion, it is clear that the impact of the Window Tax has extended beyond 18th century England, influencing the design of windows and affecting health across the British colonial continuum.