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Student Showcase Archive

Roxanne Ravenhill

MPhil work

MPhil work

The Importance of Being Specialist? The impact of component suppliers on metropolitan building practices, 1850-1914

Between 1850 and 1914, London witnessed an exponential rise in the number of firms specialising in the manufacture of decorative and built components, from fibrous plaster to iron staircases to plumbing works. Although previous work has identified growth in the number of building-related businesses during the second half of the nineteenth century, the operations of component suppliers remain distinctly understudied.This omission has led to a misconception in the existing literature- that it was only in the twentieth century that component suppliers and subcontracting became common phenomena, transforming the shape of London’s building world. This thesis attempts to overhaul this view, contending that component suppliers made much earlier contributions to construction patterns. They provided Victorian builders and architects with prefabricated parts and, often, technological solutions to the building requirements of the day.

By analysing the workings of individual component firms, this thesis will assert a far more complex chain of building design and production. The project consequently offers a unique opportunity to mobilise and link together under-explored sources from the Victoria and Albert Museum, both from its collections and archive, as well as materials held by the London Metropolitan Archive, National Archive and other institutions.

The research is framed around the key question question, from the perspective of component suppliers, how and why did this shift towards specialisation occur? Out of which, the investigation explores more broadly the role of innovation and experimentation in the development of components, the impact of standardisation and prefabrication on the organisation of construction networks, and the ways in which components shaped everyday experiences of the metropolis and the evolving mode of its built environment. Ultimately, this thesis seeks to complicate and contribute to current knowledge of the history of building and decorating practices from an interdisciplinary perspective, drawing on methodologies from economic geography, the history of technology and urban studies. 

MA work

MA work

  • Site of building activity in the City of London for Colls & Sons, Throgmorton Avenue, EC2

    Site of building activity in the City of London for Colls & Sons, Throgmorton Avenue, EC2, (Taken) 2016
    Photographer: Roxanne Ravenhill

  • C. Late 19th century deconstructed book clasp, exemplifying the format of locks found on Victorian builders' prime cost books

    C. Late 19th century deconstructed book clasp, exemplifying the format of locks found on Victorian builders' prime cost books, (Taken) 2016
    7 cm x 7.5 cm | Photographer: Roxanne Ravenhill

  • C. Early 20th century ledger with patented Bramah lock

    C. Early 20th century ledger with patented Bramah lock, (Taken) 2016
    Brass, Leather and Woven Paper
    6.5 cm x 25 cm | Photographer: Roxanne Ravenhill

Trollope and Sons, Colls and Sons: Re-appraising the position of skill and interior design in the Victorian building world, c. 1850–1903

‘Every man […] has a prime-cost book kept in the office in which the materials and labour are abstracted in columns. By casting the columns horizontally, the prime-cost of each job is estimated, while a vertical casting up gives the actual quantity of material used in the year […]’  

Building News & Engineering Journal (1877)

In 1903, Trollope & Sons and Colls & Sons merged to become one of the most notable “city builders” of twentieth century Britain. This study addresses their nineteenth century chrysalis as Victorian builder-decorators. Over the course of the century, each firm erected and altered London’s skyline, including work on the Stock Exchange and the financial City, Robert Adam’s 20 Portman Square and 11 St James’s Square, the National Art Library, the Natural History Museum and the Houses of Parliament. 

Employing prime cost books, surviving plans, contracts and law court records, both firms are shown to have regularly subcontracted out critical aspects of their work to specialist firms. This enabled them to take advantage of new technologies, to offer interior decoration services and to meet the material requirements of each of their clients. As a result, the dissertation contends that construction and interior design shared a closer relationship than has previously been acknowledged. 

Presented as the pre-eminent building figure in Victorian London, this dissertation questions existing definitions of the Victorian ‘master builder’ as a large-scale, fully integrated building contractor. Ultimately, the capacity of Colls and Trollope to carry out such diversified undertakings resulted from their umbrella structure, which combined the dominant building and decorating trades, as well as furniture and woodwork production, figuratively, under one roof. However, the comprehensive structures of Colls and Trollope did not emerge out of the absolute integration of the labour process. Instead, both firms relied on an amalgamation of permanent labour, wage labour and subcontracting for the delivery of pre-fabricated components and trade-based work. In managing complex, multi-layered supply chains, this dissertation stresses the economic, geographical, social and material weight of builders' networks and, in doing so, underscores the role of multiple actors in the production of the nineteenth century built environment.



  • Ravenhill
  • MPhil


    School of Arts & Humanities


    History of Design, 2017–

  • MA Degree


    School of Humanities


    MA History of Design, 2016

  • Architectural & Design Historian

    Roxanne Ravenhill is an architectural and design historian based between the RCA and Victoria and Albert Museum. She holds a Master's degree from the joint programme between the two institutions and a Bachelor's degree from the University of Warwick. She has been awarded an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award to further her MA work on nineteenth century construction networks and the working methods of late Victorian master builders. Her  thesis explores the wider impact specialist component suppliers had on metropolitan building practices between 1850 and 1914. 


    Construction History

    Building Archaeology and Conservation

    British Architectural History (1400-1950)

    Interior Design History (1800-1950)

    Labour, Trade and Educational Histories 

  • Degrees

  • BA (Hons) History of Art, University of Warwick, 2014; MA History of Design, Royal College of Art, 2016
  • Experience

  • Cataloguing Volunteer, Archive of Art and Design, 2018; EAP Support Tutor, RCA, 2018; Assistant to postgraduate administrator and researcher, V&A, 2016-2017
  • Awards

  • Eliahou Dangoor Science Scholarship, 2010-2011; Undergraduate Research Student Scholarship, 2012; Oliver Ford Trust Scholarship, 2014-2016
  • Conferences

  • '‘Used by all leading Architects and Builders’: Contracting networks in Victorian London', Association for Art History Annual Conference, King's College London and Courtauld Institute of Art, April 2018