Saving a Century
|The Euston Arch, demolished in 1962, was a powerful symbol of the railway age and a victim of the motorway age.
(Photo: Herbert Felton 1960, English Heritage, National Monuments Record).
|A silver model of the Euston Arch made by Carrington & Co bearing the inscription: ‘to perpetuate the memory of
one of London’s finest historic monuments’ was presented to the Victorian Society by Frank Valori, the demolition
contractor, in 1962. It was later stolen.
The Victorian Society, which celebrates
its 50th birthday this year, held its
first meeting on 25 February 1958 at
18 Stafford Terrace, Kensington, now the
Linley Sambourne House museum.>The
catalyst was Anne, Countess of Rosse, whose
husband was chairman of the Georgian Group,
and the new society drew its strength from
the already-developing interest in Victorian
architecture in the circles of the Architectural Review, Country Life, and the Victoria & Albert
Museum. It was not, as Mark Girouard has
pointed out, a few lone voices crying in the
wilderness, but a banner under which many
people from different backgrounds could
Lady Rosse brought glamour as well as
a stamp of social approval to a group which
included architects such as Hugh Casson
and Harry Goodhart-Rendel, academics such
as Nikolaus Pevsner, journalists such as
Christopher Hussey and Mark Girouard, and
popular figures such as John Betjeman. Lord
Esher was the first chairman.
The society was, from the start, interested
in Edwardian architecture too, although ‘The
Victorian and Edwardian Society’ was no doubt
considered too much of a mouthful. Its period
of concern is from 1837, the year Victoria
came to the throne, to 1914, the year the First
World War broke out. Our sister society, the
Twentieth Century Society (born in 1979), is
concerned with the period from 1914 onwards.
From its inception, the society was
very careful not to attempt to defend
everything Victorian. It acknowledged that ‘many Victorian buildings are unsuited to
modern conditions or on sites needed for
redevelopment; many are downright second-rate
or have a merely sentimental charm.
Others are of such quality that almost no
argument would justify their destruction.’
But now, with considerably more
experience about how old buildings might
be adapted for new uses, a much greater
understanding about how historic buildings
are valued by their communities, and a
much less sanguine attitude towards new
developments, we do stick our neck out for a
wider range of Victorian buildings.
The first great campaign was for the
Euston Arch (1836-7 by Philip Hardwick), not
an arch at all, of course, so much as a gigantic
Doric gateway. Plans to rebuild Euston Station,
on the cards since the 1930s, finally brought it
down in 1962.
It was a victim not of necessity but of the
desire of British Railways’ management for
a totally modern image for the railways. The Architectural Review dubbed it the ‘Euston
Murder’. Our suggestion that the arch and
lodges be moved closer to Euston Road was
deemed impossible, even though, as you can
see today, there was plenty of room for them
to be re-erected in front.
The Treasury estimated that the move
would cost about £190,000 but, given the
general unwillingness to retain the arch, we
can be pretty certain that the figure was not
an underestimate. Moreover, it was, as we
sadly noted, ‘rather less than the Treasury
ungrudgingly paid out about the same time for
the purchase of two rather indifferent Renoirs,
which no one was threatening to destroy’.
There was also pressure to get the building
down quickly, and to make sure it stayed
down. Despite demolition having begun in December 1961, plans for the new station were
only completed in 1963 and then rejected by
the London County Council the same year.
The demolition contractor, Frank Valori, had
been prevented from numbering the stones
to allow possible re-erection, even though he
had an undoubted affection for the building.
He presented the Victorian Society with a
silver model of the arch, made by Carrington & Co, bearing the inscription: ‘to perpetuate
the memory of one of London’s finest historic
monuments'. The model has since been stolen,
but there is a similar one in the National
Railway Museum at York.
At the time, it was argued that the new
Euston Station would be a worthy replacement,
but the train sheds are a crushing
disappointment. The concourse building may
have a certain elegance, as do the Seifert office
blocks in front, but the station is now up for
redevelopment in its turn, and one wonders
whether all this justified the loss of buildings
which had much more enduring qualities.
|The Coal Exchange, London, photographed just before demolition in 1962 (Photo: Planet News Ltd)
Mr Valori was certainly being kept busy
by the desire for a modern Britain; the early
1960s were a difficult time to be a demolition
contractor with an architectural sensibility.
Next up was the Coal Exchange on Lower
Thames Street in the City of London, built in
1847-9 to the designs of James Bunning, the
City architect. And, once again, the Victorian
Society had perfectly sensible suggestions as
to how it might be saved.
The interior was particularly important: it
was one of the earliest and most remarkable
examples of cast-iron construction in the
world, several years before the Crystal Palace,
and comparable in date with Labrouste’s
libraries in Paris. There were three storeys
of richly-ornamented cast-iron galleries in
an extraordinary domed rotunda, decorated
with images illustrating coal’s geological,
social and economic significance. And, being
made of cast-iron, it was eminently suited to
dismantling and re-erection elsewhere. Some thought that it might be
incorporated as part of the Barbican
redevelopment, or a section preserved in a
museum such as the Victoria & Albert. An
enquiry came in from the museums director
of Durham County Council, and there was
even a possibility of using the rotunda as the
centrepiece of the new National Gallery of
Victoria in Melbourne.
Dismantling and storage would have
cost £20,000 and the City of London gave
the Victorian Society three and a half weeks
to raise the sum. But even if demolition
had been necessary, and today we would be
far more hesitant to lose a building of such
quality, why the rush? Even at the time it
was acknowledged that the road widening
for which the Coal Exchange was condemned
could not start until 1972 at the earliest, and
in the end the site was still empty in 1980. The
building had come down in 1962.
The face of modern Britain was being
reshaped, and many people felt that Victorian
buildings were like a toothless old aunt. At the
same time, the need to cope with increasing
volumes of traffic provided the perfect excuse
to get rid of embarrassing and often slightly tatty reminders of Victorian self-confidence.
Such it was with the re-planning of Whitehall,
which gathered additional impetus from
the need to house growing numbers of civil
servants in better conditions.
|Model of Sir Leslie Martin’s proposal for the redevelopment of Whitehall. Gone are most of the Victorian and
Edwardian buildings (except Norman Shaw’s New Scotland Yard, crammed in a courtyard). Inigo Jones’s Banqueting
House survives as a traffic island.
In 1964 Sir Leslie Martin was appointed
by the government to oversee the
comprehensive re-planning of Whitehall.
The greatest casualty was to be the Foreign
Office by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1863-8),
whose fate had already been announced the
previous year by Geoffrey Rippon, Minister
of Public Buildings and Works: ‘I have...
decided to demolish the existing building’.
By this time it was overcrowded and in need
of refurbishment: his successor described it
in 1965 as ‘a squalid office slum, incapable
of treatment to bring it up to the standards
and working conditions which are reasonably
Once again, the Victorian Society proved
willing to compromise. Indeed, by today’s
standards, it was perhaps too willing. But
things really were very different back then
when we had to campaign for buildings
the loss of which today would be almost
unthinkable. The society drew up a plan
identifying ‘buildings to be preserved at all
costs’, ‘buildings of secondary importance,
demolition of which should be avoided
if possible’ and ‘buildings not worthy of
preservation’. Astonishingly, in the last
category came such great buildings as William
Young’s War Office (1898-1906) and John
Brydon’s Government Offices on Great George
The society wrote that: ‘at least seven-eighths
of the Whitehall area remains suitable
for clearance. The Victorian Society is quite
as keen that bad Victorian and Edwardian
buildings should be replaced by something
better as it is that good Victorian and
Edwardian buildings should be protected’.
Values change and, as we refine our
appreciation, what was considered ‘bad’ then
may be judged differently today.
|The Downing Street facade of Gilbert Scott’s Foreign Office. Distracted by No 10, few people notice the incredibly skilful way Scott has designed a flanking elevation. (Photo: Ian Dungavell)
Desperate to save the Foreign Office, the
Victorian Society suggested that 'the whole
block except for the best interiors could be "gutted" with new concrete-framed offices
built within the existing facades, the main
courtyard probably being scrapped’. This
would have involved keeping the facades to
Whitehall and St James’s Park, but the skylines
only to Downing Street and King Charles
Street. The great Durbar Court of the India
Office was also considered ‘expendable’.
Thankfully, the loss of most of the
buildings of Whitehall in favour of a more
efficient bureaucratic machine was too much
for most people to stomach and Martin’s
ambitious (some would say megalomaniac)
scheme was shelved. In 1964 the Victorian
Society had been practically alone in thinking
the Foreign Office should be preserved, but
by 1970 it had been joined by all the principal
preservation and planning bodies in the
country. The buildings threatened by the
redevelopment of Whitehall had then been
Now that the building has been restored,
the government is justifiably very proud of
the Foreign Office. It attracts huge numbers of
visitors whenever it is open to the public, as on
Open House London weekends, most of whom
would be horrified to think that the building
was once seriously threatened.
This is a good sign that understanding
and appreciation of our Victorian heritage is
widening and deepening, but the old threats
associated with traffic, population growth and
economic cycles are still with us, and new ones
such as climate change are emerging. There is
still much for the Victorian Society to do.
Copies of Saving a Century, a commemorative
publication by Gavin Stamp celebrating
the work of the Victorian Society, are
available from www.victoriansociety.org.uk (£5 including UK postage and packing).
article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 2008
IAN DUNGAVELL is director of the Victorian
Society. His efforts to draw attention to the
small number of surviving Victorian and
Edwardian public swimming pools in England
culminated in 2008 with the 1,000 year swim
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