In his new book on how Britain saved its built heritage, Simon Thurley tells how unsung architects were at the heart of the conservation movement in the first half of the 20th century
‘They live in obscurity and die in poverty,’ said Sir Charles Peers in 1931 of the architects and archaeologists of the Ancient Monuments Department of the Office (later, the Ministry) of Works. Yet between the wars, these men from the ministry rescued the medieval ruins of Britain. And later, as German bombs rained down on our cities, they went out and identified the most important old buildings to be saved from demolition.
But Peers, then Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments, was right - the achievements of the smallest department within the smallest office in Whitehall have all but been forgotten. Why? Partly because today our castles and abbeys are such an entrenched part of our physical and cultural landscape that it can feel as if their survival was never in any doubt.
Yet at the start of the 20th century most of them were in such terrible condition they could have easily collapsed and vanished under earth and vegetation. The picturesque decay so admired by Victorians was unsustainable. Many ruins were literally held up by the ivy that enveloped them. Something had to be done.
Enter the Ancient Monuments Department. Empowered by the Ancient Monuments Act of 1913, which gave the state the right to intervene and acquire monuments of outstanding historic importance, the department’s architects mounted an enormous rescue mission. They were led by Peers and his principal architect, Frank Baines. Peers had been a pupil of the architect and historian of medieval buildings, Thomas Graham Jackson, while Baines had trained under Charles Robert Ashbee and won attention for his outstanding draughtsmanship and swashbuckling approach (he once climbed to the top of Nelson’s column to check on the quality of its workmanship). These two effectively invented the Ancient Monuments Department, its policies and procedures. The approach they set out remained almost unaltered until the 1970s.
Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire is just one masterpiece that would not be with us today had it not been for the men from the ministry. When the monastery came into the care of the government in 1917, most of it lay under mounds of earth and the quire of the abbey church was in danger of imminent collapse. At high level the walls were little more than heaps of rubble and in places the tops were two and a half feet out of line with the base.
Baines devised a plan to tie the structure together with reinforced concrete and railway rails set deep into the walls. The facing stones were replaced in their previous positions, giving no hint of the interventions. Work also started to clear the debris from the nave so that the ruins could be revealed down to the original floor level.
For the men from the ministry, it was vitally important to be able to ‘read’ the building, like a manuscript or map. Inspired by the combination of stone and neatly clipped grass of Oxbridge colleges and with the invention of the motor mower, it was now possible to set the rescued ruined monuments in manicured lawns embedded with metal panels explaining their historic plans.
Their method did not meet everyone’s approval, not least the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which complained that ‘everything is now fixed, solid and secure, a medieval ruin frozen, as if by cold storage, into perpetuity’. For Peers and Baines, the notion of doing a little here and there was the romantic musings of people who had no real responsibility. Their priority was to save them, and save them they did.
With the onset of war, the men from the ministry faced a new challenge as bombs cut a swathe through British cities. Bombings forced local authorities to make decisions as to which damaged buildings should be saved, and which could be demolished. As its name suggests, the Ancient Monuments Department had not normally been involved with post-medieval urban buildings, but it was now forced to organise a scheme that would allow the rapid assessment of thousands of buildings in towns up and down the land. The answer was the Salvage Scheme. Enlisting the help of the RIBA, the ministry gathered 300 architects, who toured their localities and assembled lists of buildings that met the criteria. In the space of a year, the whole country was assessed. The lists were highly variable in quality, but they allowed authorities to notify the Office of Works if a listed building had been damaged and seek their advice. From the ruins of the Blitz, the listing system emerged.
Accepting his RIBA Gold Medal in 1933, Peers predicted that: ‘There will be things in the time to come which will test the skill of some far-off successor of mine, when he has to deal with the magnificent masterpieces of the Early Concrete Period.’ As that far-off successor, this is what we’re doing. But, whereas the majority of the original ministry men were architects, now successors are more likely to be academics and historians, myself included. Why? Have most architects fallen out of love with history? Are they really more interested in designing the icons of tomorrow? It would be great to re-engage architects with this nation’s great architectural history.
Simon Thurley is chief executive of English Heritage