Never heard of bungaroosh or bungarouche? I wish I hadn’t. It’s a building material used in Brighton by Georgian and Victorian builders, those exemplars of proper values of craftsmanship and sturdy independence in the halycon days of laissez-faire. Sure enough, the surveyor says it’s what holds up the little house we’re buying. A conservation expert for the local council explains:
The material is basically a freely interpreted flint rubble. A lime mortar was made up, and poured into shuttering, and anything else that came to hand was bunged in too. This could include old bricks, bits of flint, odd lumps of wood, lumps of chalk, in fact anything solid. [snip] It is not unusual to find vertical joints between the front wall and party walls. This can be a boon if the front wall falls off, since it leaves the rest of the house standing. [snip] Most of the time … bungaroosh stays in place — probably through force of habit. All the bits of timber in the mixture tend to create a rather pleasant breeding ground for rot and exotic fungi. Since the mixture is very porous, the rot circulates quickly, and can usually find some damp somewhere to feed on. In fact bungaroosh has to be a little damp. Too dry and the now leached mortar crumbles, too wet and it becomes mobile. My predecessor considered that on this basis you could probably demolish a third of Brighton with a well-aimed hose.
Why do I post this?
First, it’s a splendid and widely applicable term of abuse.
- The appropriations bill is a fetid bungaroosh of wormy pork and tax-break payoffs for lobbies.
- The party platform was cobbled together overnight, the usual incoherent bungaroosh of every faction’s wish-list.
- Tony Blair’s response to the crisis of alienation in Britain’s Muslim minority is to announce yet another commission to blather on at great expense about “multiculturalism”: to cover up the absence of policy, equal parts of sentimental communitarianism, “Yes Minister” inaction, and cynical media spin are thrown together into the usual New Labour bungaroosh.
Second, those Victorian values. The builders got away with this because of lack of regulation. Buyers of houses are vulnerable through the usual information gap; they can’t see how a house is built, and don’t know enough to challenge the producer. Bricks may have been expensive in Regency Brighton, but surely not in 1870, well after the coming of the railways. Still, a penny cheaped is a penny earned.
Though the name is exotic and of unknown origin – you can pick your spelling according to your preference for French or Oriental etymology – the material is in fact very common throughout Europe. The walls of the many ruined farmhouses in rural Spain are made of a soft concrete rubble. Inside the expensive dressed stone facings, it’s what went into the walls and piers of cathedrals and the arches of bridges. I dare say the Romans used it for slave hovels.
As with art, our impression of the average standards of buildings in the past suffers from a tremendous survivor bias: we only see the better stuff now. Many mediaeval cathedrals suffered major collapses, without the excuse of fire: Beauvais, Hereford, Lincoln, Ely, Winchester, Dublin, Erfurt … It’s a miracle that Salisbury cathedral hasn’t, with foundations all of four feet deep, or Strasbourg, whose airy 400 foot spire rests on oak pilings sunk into wet gravel.
I was shocked because of the comparison with the house we built in Strasbourg in 1975 and the one we live in now in Spain, built about 1983. Both have massive compound concrete floor slabs; Strasbourg has 22 cm alveolated brick walls standing on a solid concrete basement box; Caleta – in a minor earthquake zone – has brick walls in a reinforced concrete frame, with 30cm² pillars. Some of this improvement is of course down to technical progress, mainly the inventions of reinforced concrete and Portland cement; some to changes in relative prices, making materials cheaper and labour more expensive, so jobbing builders have less incentive to cut corners. But that would also hold of Turkey, where shoddily built blocks of flats collapse by the thousand in the predictable earthquakes; and public buildings don’t, because Turkish builders daren’t cheat the government.
The counts of Champagne got it right in the twelfth century. With asymmetric information, a trustworthy market takes place in the space between the church (or equivalent), to supply norms of integrity, and the castle gallows to enforce them.