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As far as I understand it, they were built in a time where builders only had to pay for the land taken up by the ground floor. Hence, a lot of buildings from that period (Tudor IIRC) are smaller on the ground floor and loom over the streets. Which made walking on them fairly dangerous as poop was just chucked out of upstairs windows at the time.
Incidentally, that is – I believe – why it is said that a man should walk on the outside of a woman, because a gent would not let a lady walk on the side more likely to have poop flying overhead. No source for that one, sadly. 😉