Portable Houses

Thomas Messenger was producing portable or tenant houses as early as 1862. The obvious abiding principle was that the house should not be permanently fixed; therefore, they were complete structures in their own right, normally stand-alone and having no structural brickwork.

Only one description exists of a Thomas Messenger portable house and that was one built to house Major R. Trevor Clarke’s display of cotton plant at the International Exhibition of 1872. In this example, the need for a brick wall was removed by the use of iron muntins extending down into the ground, with grooves in the slate slab sides, which fitted into the muntins. The house was subsequently purchased by Sir James John Trevor Lawrence, horticulturalist, collector and politician, who lived at Burford Lodge, Dorking, Surrey. Whether there was more than one design is unclear, as no remaining known examples are known.


Ground Plan of Portable House

It is usual to think of portable structure as being relatively small. This is not the case Mr. Thomas Rivers in ‘The Orchard House, or the Cultivation of Fruit Trees under Glass’[1] quotes a recently erected portable structure

It is 430 feet long, 14 feet wide, 9 feet high at back, 4½ feet high in front; the posts are of Fir, 5 inches by 3, placed 6 feet apart and let into iron sockets : the rafters are 4½ by 1½ inches, placed 24 inches apart, and tied together by a band of T-iron, screwed to the underside of each rafter : this keeps them from ragging or warping. The back wall is formed of ¾ inch boards nailed to the posts (painted stone-colour).

None of Messenger’s portable houses appears to be on this scale, the largest known example was 25ft. long.


Portable House

Between 1868 and 1874 only 8 occurrences are recorded of Thomas Messenger selling or quoting for a portable structure. The earliest is March 1868 when he gave Messrs Wilkins and Son, ironmongers, of Calne, Wiltshire, an estimate (erection and fitting excluded) for small 15ft. by 12ft. lean-to portable house, which included 2 sets of ventilation tackle and guttering. The same year William Henry Bates, an india-rubber manufacturer, of St. Mary’s Mills, Narborough Road, Leicester purchased a heated portable greenhouse, with slatted floor, together with chimney and associated brickwork. This appears to stretch the concept of a portable house beyond the normal definition.

In December 1868, Thomas Messenger gave Francis Ebenezer Smith, an accountant, sharebroker and estate agent[2], of Botanical Villa, Clarke House Road, Sheffield, 2 quotes, one for a heated ‘permanent’ house and another for a heated portable house. Both houses were the 15ft. long by 12ft. wide, with the portable house taller by 3ft. There was very little difference in the price per superficial foot between the two, the permanent house at 1s. 5d. and the portable at 1s. 6d. Interestingly the portable house was quoted with slatted floor, cresting and finials (all additional), whilst the permanent house was not.

In 1869, he sold or quoted for two portable houses, one to Mr. J.D. Kennedy of Preston, Lancashire and another to Mr. Sandale of Nursery Green, Norwich.

In 187o, he quoted the Hon. and Revd. A.G. Campbell, Rector of Knipton in Leicestershire £61 5s. for a conservatory (excluding heating which was an additional £20 5s.). The Hon. and Revd. A. G. Campbell obviously inquired as to the cost of making the house portable, to which Thomas Messenger estimated that it would cost no more than an additional £6.

The following year, in an amended plan, he quoted Orlando Webb, of Belmont, Bangor, a London-based lawyer, agent and one-time chairman of the board of Directors of a Welsh mining company, £85 for a 25ft. by 12ft. portable greenhouse, including two 8ft. by 6ft. pits.

In 1873, Mr. Stubbs of Worthington Field, near Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire was quoted 1s. 1d. per superficial foot (framing and glazing) for a cheap portable house. This compares with around 1s. 6d. per superficial foot for a standard portable house.


Section through Portable House


  1. 13th Edition; published by Longmans, Green & Co, London 1867.

  2. Business address No 1, George Street, Sheffield.