Half Coffin Stair

The world of architecture is filled with specialised words and expressions, a language which enables us to understand the structures of buildings and their decoration. We have become familiar with terms such as corbels, cornices, entablatures and so on. This language has evolved over the centuries to become highly complex and detailed and I love to spend spare time reading from illustrated dictionaries of architectural terms and discovering the proper names for the parts of the buildings I draw.

Recently I was reading from a book published in 1808 and snappily titled “The Builder’s Dictionary: Containing an explanation of the terms made use of in architecture; also, the terms of art used by workmen concerned in building”.  This book was one of many published as a direct result of the ‘London Building Act’ which came into force in 1774 in the midst of a massive property building boom. The act helped to standardise building layout and design and also led to the publication of numerous and easily obtainable pattern books containing all the information an artisan builder would require. Such titles as ‘The Builder’s Jewel’ or ‘The Workman’s Director’ were invaluable tools.

Often people ask me if Archistory can track down some original plans of their house from the local archives. I have to let most know that on the whole these are very rare indeed. This is because these books served to provide the technical information the builder required. The layout and decoration of a house would have been discussed but very rarely drawn out. It must have been then, during the late Georgian and early Victorian period that most builders would have had an in-depth knowledge of the terms and jargon commonly used. Here are some examples from the 1808 publication:

NEWEL, the upright post that a pair of winding stairs turns about.

NICHES, the hollow places in a wall where statues are set.

NOSEINGS are part of the sides of a marble chimney-piece, also the edges or front parts of steps, or at the foot of a cove, &c.

Like every language, the language of the building trade has its slang as well as its more formal vocabulary. Here is what it had to say on the subject of stairs:

STAIRS, are of various sorts as strait-flyers, square flyers, triangular-flyers, French-flyers, winding-stairs, and mixt stairs.

Reading this entry, I was reminded of some wonderful builders’ slang which I have no doubt emanated from that period. It sounds straight out of Dickens but I have heard that the dimensions and specifications of staircases that turned corners were often described in terms of ‘coffins’ or ‘half-coffins’. A half-coffin stair is a flight which requires a coffin to be tilted to about 45 degrees to be carried up or down. A full coffin stair, such as one where there are small landings in the staircase, will have sufficient width for a coffin to remain horizontal on its journey, the grander the house, the more likely that a stately and level progress can be retained. I love the way jargon always enlightens the expert and baffles the novice; ask your internet service provider a technical question and see how you get on!

1 reply
  1. walk by faith says:

    I’ll take this half-coffin stair theory into account if I ever have to conduct part of a funeral service in a home (it does happen in the Valleys!). Mark

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